The Psychology of Shared Experience

As experiential designers, we spend a considerable amount of time strategizing about how to elicit specific emotions from our audiences. It is, after all, emotions that inform behaviors and generate transformational value for brands.

So when we had the opportunity to talk with Rachel Hershenberg about the intersection of emotions and experience — specifically how to heighten and prolong the emotional reactions experiences produce — we jumped at the chance. Dr. Hershenberg is a licensed clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University. She is also the author of Activating Happiness, which you can pre-order here.

Read on for an excerpt of the conversation.

Leigh Long, The XD Agency: Do you find that experiences demonstrably more impactful when shared with others? And how so?

Rachel Hershenberg: When we talk about sharing experiences, we can think of that in two distinct ways. The first is actively sharing an experience with another, meaning you’re participating in an activity with someone else. Assuming we’re talking about an enjoyable activity, there is definitely benefit to engaging in positive activities with another person. It can maximize how much you enjoy the event while strengthening the bond you feel for one another because you participated in it together.

The second type of sharing an experience is having the experience and then telling someone else about it. We tend to think less about this type of sharing — and there is really great data showing how meaningful it is.

LL: So to be sure, if I enjoy an experience on my own then tell a friend about it, my own emotional reaction is heightened?

RH: Exactly. Researchers call it capitalizing when you tell someone else about a positive event in your life. The event could have taken place alone or with people — the details don’t matter. What matters is that you get a chance to re-experience your positive event by drawing out the details and having a conversation that has you elaborate on what was meaningful about it.

LL:  You hear a lot of about the psychological benefits of journaling. Is this an extrapolation of that?

RH: Journaling about positive experiences, and focusing on gratitude, is absolutely good for psychological health. You are absolutely right about that. The neat thing is that when you have this active conversation about what happened, then you not only get individual psychological benefits (like you might from journaling), but you simultaneously enhance your feelings of closeness in the relationship. So in that way it’s similar to having done the event with that person because an end result can be feeling closer to the person with whom you shared the event. The connection grows stronger.

Let me spell out a little more clearly about what I mean. What is one of the first things you do when something good happens to you? Like your daughter met a new milestone that you got to witness?

LL: I’d either call my husband about it or tell him about it as soon as he gets home.

RH: Exactly. And assuming he’s not stressed out from a long day and not multi-tasking while you tell him — in other words, he’s giving you his full attention — what might happen next?

LL: He’d most likely ask questions and share in my excitement. We’d probably end up talking about how she is growing up so beautifully and so quickly!

RH: Right on. If your husband responds in an optimally supportive way, he is going to ask you to elaborate on the details of what happened. He’ll also help you reflect on what that event meant to you and how this event might impact your future. And as you engage in this conversation, you might be likely to feel close to him, like he really gets you – and like he gets why this small moment in your day felt so huge.

And you not only get the mood boost from the original experience, but then you get to reap all these additional benefits when you talk about it at a later point in time.

LL: That seems really meaningful in a personal setting, and I can imagine the effects would hold true in a professional one, too — whether it’s consumers who are sharing their emotional reaction to a brand with friends or colleagues who are taking in new business messages together and fostering more productive and meaningful work relationships along the way.

LL: Are there certain people who are most effective to capitalize with — who most powerfully amplify the emotional reaction?

RH: The most important ingredient is making sure that you get an optimally supportive response, meaning that the person you tell is paying attention, making eye contact, and able to express genuine enthusiasm. This person is also going to continue the conversation, not just give you a “that’s great” and move on to another topic. So the nuance is thinking through who can I talk about this topic with and when is a good time to tell them. Research shows that you get the benefits when having these discussions in all types of relationships, even with acquaintances. So even though they can be a great resource to build intimacy in romantic relationships, they are absolutely beneficial for relationships across the board.

LL: In experiential marketing, we focus a lot on the face-to-face experience, but also look to maximize how the experience is shared — how its life and reach can both be extended — through social media. What role do you think technology plays in helping people capitalize?

RH: Research-wise, we know less about head-to-head comparisons, but in general I would recommend considering the pros and cons of different forms of communication. Real time, face-to-face might give you the most positive feedback, but that might not be feasible given how busy we all are in daily life. Texting might give you the most immediate response but might limit how much detail you go into. Email might really help you craft your narrative and set you up to receive a longer response, but the response you receive might be quite delayed after the event. And posting on social media might increase the frequency of “likes” and general support, but you might elaborate on the meaningfulness of the event the least.

LL: That makes perfect sense. It sounds like finding the right complement to the content and context is important. Talking about the experience with people in real time amplifies is meaning, but so too does talking about more broadly, virtually.

RH: Exactly. To maximize the emotional impact, I’d generally recommend utilizing a combination of methods.

LL: Thank you so much for sharing your insights and helping us better understand how psychological research bears out the emotional impact of sharing experiences. I’m certain it will help us help brands capitalize — in both senses of the word.

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12 East 49th Street
11th Floor
New York, New York 10017
United States

January 17, 2018

By Leigh Long